PHOENIX - The state's chief election officer wants tighter financial reporting laws so voters know who is really funding campaigns.
Secretary of State Ken Bennett's call for beefed-up regulations comes on the heels of the disclosure that an Arizona-based group gave $11 million to influence two California ballot measures.
The concern isn't just the size of the contributions; it's that Americans for Responsible Leadership, after being forced to comply with California campaign disclosure laws, revealed it was only passing through money from another Arizona organization that originally got it from a Virginia group.
And the concern isn't just about the California race. Americans for Responsible Leadership also put about $1.5 million into Arizona campaigns to defeat the permanent sales tax hike in Proposition 204 and the open-primary proposal in Proposition 121.
But it was only the California case that opened a window into the Arizona contributions even a crack because nothing in existing Arizona law requires the group to reveal where the money came from. Ann Ravel, head of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, called it a case of "money laundering."
Former Arizona House Speaker Kirk Adams, who heads Americans for Responsible Leadership, sought to tamp down speculation that interests elsewhere were financing the campaigns against the two Arizona measures. He said contributions from Arizona sources "exceeded the amount we spent on Arizona campaigns."
But absent a legal requirement, Adams was not naming names.
Records show the group, with its all-Republican board of directors, was involved in much more than just the Arizona and California ballot measures. Federal Election Commission filings show it also spent nearly $4.9 million in an effort to deny a second term to President Obama.
It also supported GOP congressional candidates, including $13,985 on behalf of Jeff Flake. It spent $108,590 against six-term Utah Democrat Rep. Jim Matheson.
Bennett said his experience with Arizona elections in this and prior years convinces him more transparency in funding sources is needed. He said existing state laws focus largely on contribution limits for candidate races, which may not be the best thing for voter education. "We need to think more about how to more immediately provide disclosure as to who's giving and not focus so much on how much they gave," Bennett said.
"As we've found out, if you give to one group and they give to another group, those monies can kind of be accumulated," he said. "And it's not until well after the election that you know who was really behind the first giving," if then.
Under Arizona law, no formal reporting is required, even after the election. And on ballot measures, unlike candidate campaigns, there is no limit on how much any individual, business or organization can give.
Adams said it is up to state lawmakers to decide what needs to be disclosed.
"We will comply with any new legislation or statutes that are passed at the Legislature and signed by the governor," he said.
"But we will comply in the context of everyone else complying," Adams continued. "This needs to be a playing field where everybody knows what the rules are when they step onto the field."
Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said better financial disclosure is needed all across the board. He said he believes voters are entitled to know the ultimate sources of any money spent to influence elections.
A majority of state lawmakers has been resistant to expanding financial disclosure requirements, however.
Last session, Bennett teamed with Farnsworth on legislation aimed at finding out who is behind corporations formed solely to influence elections. The legislation would have required corporate campaigns to file forms on the sources of their cash and how the money is spent. But the bill stalled before getting to the House floor.
Farnsworth said opposition was not just from Republicans but also from Democrats who "have things that they do through unions."